The Grace of a New Year

Dear Friends:

I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever;
with my mouth I will make known
Your faithfulness to all generations.
(Ps. 89:1)

We are given the grace of a new year.

This is not to be taken lightly even though our conceptions of time are artificial and arbitrary. Perception does become our operating reality.

My clients hurried to complete deals by December 31 so that they wouldn’t have to pay as much tax on April 15. Others worked overtime to meet end of the year cash requirements for debt compliance.

Time simply ran out for some. Driving the residential streets of my town on New Year’s Day, I notice new foreclosure signs in front yards. Dreams of home and a bright financial future have died with the neglected landscaping.

A colleague told me about a friend who committed suicide on Christmas eve with three grandchildren waiting for him to arrive to open presents. He had suffered conflict and losses in his business and marriage. Apparently, at Christmas when expectations run high and the pain of regret is sharpest, he reached a tipping point of anger, grief and despair, and took his life. He saw no advantage in having more time, but he was wrong.

King David was at a low point of attack and disgrace when he appealed to God to take over his time.

Because of all my adversaries
I have become a reproach,
especially to my neighbors,
and an object of dread
to my acquaintances,
those who see me in the street
flee from me.
I have been forgotten like one
who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel
For I hear the whispering of many! —
terror on every side! —
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life.
*
But I trust in you, O Lord;
I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hand;
rescue me from the hand
of my enemies and
from my persecutors!
Make your face shine on your servant;
save me in your steadfast love!
O Lord, Let me not be put to shame,
for I call upon you . . . .”
(Ps. 31:11-17)

David’s prayer reveals some valuable lessons about spiritual growth in times of intense personal struggle. “Terror on every side,” is a reference to inescapable danger. The warrior-king was hemmed in by oppression beyond his strength to defend. Instead of thrashing on in violent, but futile defense, or quitting in self-pity, David placed his fate in the hands of the Lord. His, “But I trust in you, O Lord,” is the ultimate surrender. His “I say, ‘You are my God'” is the ultimate statement of fact. His “my times are in your hand” is acknowledgment that there are seasons to a life and God’s timing is what counts. David yielded control of his exigent circumstances to the strong hand and shining smile of a loving, faithful God.

It is terrible indeed to be harassed, persecuted, entangled, and broken. Yet it is worse to conclude that what we have here and now is all we will ever have. That tempts us to think that our only choices are to grab all we can and fight to keep it, or concede to our misery. Choosing to grab and fight inevitably leads us to escalating violence. Choosing to concede that a miserable existence is our destiny plunges us into apathetic despair. Either way we are vulnerable to exploitation. Any time the success of someone (politicians, marketers, money-changers in the temple) depends on the response of others (voters, consumers, the needy), manipulation is sure to follow. The temptation to do good at someone else’s expense proves irresistible to those who “would be like God” (Gen. 3:5).

Government bailouts only last as long as there is money, collateral, and the political will to distribute the money to those who need it. Psalm 146:3-4 gives this cynical warning about trusting political leaders for personal security: “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.”

It is an ancient observation that humans are quite willing to trade their freedoms for “food” ( material security) and “fun” ( entertainment). The Roman poet Juvenal wrote in the Second Century: “… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions ­ everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses” (Satire X).

Instant gratification is no salvation. The Apostle Paul observed, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19).

The solution said the author of Psalm 146 is to take the long view.

Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob;
whose hope is in the Lord his God;
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
*
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the sojourners;
he upholds the widow and the fatherless,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
(Ps. 146:5-9)

Great promises to be sure, and beautiful too, but are they true? I arrive at the answer for my self by deduction. Who do I know that is faithless, unjust, willing to starve others to feed themselves, denying freedom to other, refusing to be transparent, shoving others down to lift themselves up, causing alienation, and disrupting families? People do that to other people in what the popular phrase calls “The way of the world.” We cannot realistically look to people, flawed and needy as we are, to save us. If there isn’t a God rising above our spiraling futility, then we are without hope beyond this moment.

Two Scriptures show me the way. David wrote, “And now, Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you” (Ps. 39:7). Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). If I want hope, I need to go to the One whose strength is perfect (2 Cor. 12:9). If I want life, I need to go to the Source (John 11:25).

I put out our Christmas tree with the trash this afternoon before sitting down to write this message. The tree was beautiful and its lights brightened our home in the cold nights of the Christmas week, but when the moment passed, the Christ of Christmas remained in my thoughts. The Giver always transcends the gifts.

Patricia and I have had the opportunity these quiet days to discuss the grace and truth that came with Jesus Christ. Two friends and I also conversed intently about the freedom realized in the forgiveness of Christ. Those encounters called me back from taking justice into my own hands to resolve some irritations and frustrations and to relinquish my pride and judgment to the One who came for me in a manger in a stable so that there is no doubt that his transforming power is God’s alone.

This weekend our son is in Herrnhut, Germany. He is singing with a chorale for services in the chapel there at the historic headquarters of the Moravian Church. This is deeply moving to me. In 1745, my ancestors on my mother’s side were sent to North Carolina from Herrnhut as Christian missionaries to the Indians of the southern colonies. My beloved Patricia is descended from Christian refugees who fled persecution from the Palatine to Ireland and then on to America. The same love of Christ that motivated our forebears to make that long and dangerous journey to freedom lives on in our hearts and we have introduced our son to it. Now, our son is back in Herrnhut singing great songs of faith in the very place where those Moravian missionaries started out 263 years ago.

There have been many twists and turns in the road of my family over the years and my appreciation is for the symbolism rather than any claim that there is an unbroken and traceable line of faith from 1745 Germany to 2008 California. Whatever the path taken, faith in Christ lives on and is burning bright. “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations” (Ps. 90:1). “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).

Our possession of that knowledge of God’s love shown to us in Jesus Christ is the very Scriptural definition of hope — “this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27).

That Christ’s love is an abiding certainty is the reality of my life and the truth that I know. It keeps me coming back to God to allow him to remove the layers of my onion peel of selfishness. It is the solid rock that I push off of to resurface again after sinking into sin and sadness. It fills my heart with the desire, an excitement far beyond obligation, to serve and to share the Good News of redemption.  It is the reason that I accept the grace of a new year with gladness and invite you to do the same, “For Christ’s love compels us” (2 Cor. 5:14).

“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who seek refuge in him” (Ps. 34:8).

Under the mercy of Christ,

Kent

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